Oskar Schell is, as promised on the blurb, one of the most unforgettable young characters in fiction you are likely to meet. He clearly has a form of autism, so experiences the world differently than many of us would. This makes for an interesting narrator. On top of this, Oskar is still in grief over the death of his father two years ago in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. His body was never found.
Oskar struggles to maintain a connection with his father, symbolised in the novel by the recurrence of a myth his father told him about the so-called sixth borough of New York. One day in his father’s closet, he finds a key in an envelope labelled ‘Black’. This sparks an odyssey – a journey to understand this last clue into his father’s life. Oskar systematically (i.e. alphabetically) visits everyone with the last name Black in New York.
Other characters take turns telling the story, mostly in a series of letters, linking to Oskar’s missing grandfather, who left before the birth of Oskar’s father. He is mute since the bombing of Dresden. The pages are also spread with photographs, things Oskar has taken an interest in.
There was a recent film version of this, which was incredibly touching. Probably a bit too sentimental for what I have seen of Safron Foer’s work. I loved the movie, but the book is a valuable experience too – less Hollywood and more real.